Human Complexity: The Story of Jackson Ball — Part 2

AUTHOR’S NOTE: “Jackson” Ball met a tragic end nearly 20 years after moving to Alaska from the East Coast. Before coming north, he served in the U.S. Army during World War II, and throughout his life he left unanswered questions in his wake: Where did he get his nickname? To whom had he been married while serving in the military? Why did he move to Alaska? What did his actions, both good and bad, reveal about the character of the man?

North to Alaska

When Arlon Elwood “Jackson” Ball died in North Kenai in 1968, state newspapers reported that he had been an 18-year resident of Alaska, implying that he first began living in Alaska in about 1950. What he did between his honorable discharge from the U.S. Army in 1945 and his move north is unclear, except for the fact that his first marriage came to an end.

Perhaps it was this termination — including a separation from any children who may have resulted from the union — that drove him northward. Perhaps going to Alaska was the fresh start he needed at this time in his life, just as his military service had provided him new opportunities a decade earlier.

Although the questions surrounding this earlier marriage complicate the end of Jackson Ball’s story, members of his family were reluctant to address those questions publicly a decade ago and have since offered no change in that stance.

It is clear, however, that Ball was busy in Alaska.

On Aug. 1, 1952, he traveled to the Land Office in Anchorage to file a on a 160-acre homestead he had staked southeast of Lower Salamatof Lake, which lies north of Kenai. On Aug. 3, 1954, he gained patent to his homestead.

Around this same time, Ball bought a fishing boat called the Donna J. and became a member of the union called Pile Drivers Local 2502. He remained a member of the union until his death, but he soon found himself needing another boat.

He nearly lost the boat in a harrowing adventure in early September 1957.

Ball, along with two other Kenai men (Carl Ahlstrom, a Territorial police officer, and Walter Myrick, a civilian employee at the Wildwood military base) planned a goat-hunting trip in Johnstone Bay, about 35 miles east of Seward.

When they arrived, they found their landing site being pounded by a heavy surf. While Bill Baker piloted the Donna J. and kept the boat in position offshore, the others loaded and deployed a skiff and attempted to make landfall.

Churning waves swamped the smaller craft, and all of their gear was lost. They managed to reach the shore and retrieve the skiff, but the harsh conditions prevented them from launching and returning to the waiting Donna J. Unable to rescue the trio on shore, Baker turned away and headed back to Seward for help.

The hunters, meanwhile, pulled the skiff up onto the beach and overturned it against a shale cliff to use for shelter from the wind and pouring rain. There, they waited three days, unaware that the Donna J. had capsized in heavy seas in Day Harbor and that Baker had had to be rescued.

On the third day, stormy seas forced the hunters to climb the cliff. Myrick and Ball received cuts from falling rock during the ascent.

Then a passing plane spotted the stranded men, dropped sleeping bags and other supplies, and notified Air-Sea Rescue. Later, an Army tug from Whittier rescued the men while the Coast Guard cutter Sedge stood by.

Despite the capsizing in Day Harbor, the Donna J. also survived this ordeal — but not the next one.

In July of the following year, a Mr. and Mrs. George Black discovered Jackson Ball alone and adrift in a skiff off Nubble Point (the northeast tip of MacDonald Spit between Jakolof Bay and Seldovia). The skiff was all that remained of his fishing vessel, the Donna J., which had exploded, burned and sunk earlier that day.

A two-paragraph newspaper article about the incident offered no explanation for the explosion. The Blacks brought Ball aboard their boat and towed his skiff to Seldovia. They also provided him with warm clothing and food.

At some point after this, Ball purchased another fishing vessel that he dubbed the Iron Mule. Before things improved for Ball, however, he encountered more misfortune.

First, there was this one-paragraph notice in the Anchorage Daily Times on Oct. 21, 1958: “A Kenai fellow who calls himself Lead Poison Jackson Ball is offering $25 for the conviction of what must be Alaska’s most unusual vandal. Ball claims the strong-armed culprit ‘cut’ his ton-and-a-half truck in two at a Kenai gravel pit.”

Second, there was another family tragedy.

By 1958, Jackson was one of four Ball family members who had moved from Connecticut to the Kenai Peninsula. His older sister, Lillie, was married to William Mongeau. In 1952 they had purchased the Soldotna-area homestead of John William “Jack” Keeler and moved into the two-story Keeler home with their five children. Only four months later it burned to the ground. Although they lost many of their possessions, no one was hurt, and the Mongeaus moved to Kenai and, a few years later, to Spenard.

By the mid-1950s, Jackson was also joined in Kenai by his youngest sibling, John David “Johnny” Ball, whom Jackson called “Buddy,” and by their mother, Margaret Ball, who by this time was in her mid-60s. Buddy, who was 27 and single in 1958, was working as an auto body repairman.

In early November, he was killed in a one-car accident near Soldotna. His survivors, in addition to family members in Alaska, included his sister Esther, who was living in California and had been in trouble in her youth and early adulthood; older brother Robert (in North Carolina), and sisters Amy and Gerda (both of Connecticut).

On Feb. 17, 1959, about three months after his brother’s death, 36-year-old Jackson Ball married for the second time. His bride in the Connecticut civil ceremony was a two-time divorcee, 29-year-old Mary D. Sullivan. This would be the final marriage for each of them, and they would produce four daughters together.

The Ball family split time over the next nine years between Jackson’s North Kenai homestead and a home on DeArmoun Road, south of Anchorage. Jackson made no headlines during this time, but one of his daughters, many years later, said that her father — called “Bud” by his wife — primarily made a living by taking hunters and fishermen out in his boat to various islands in Southcentral Alaska.

That daughter — Margaret, the eldest — remembered her father fondly and once recalled his thoughtfulness in walking miles through the snow to buy her a radio that she really wanted for Christmas. When Jackson was gunned down in Kenai in 1968, Margaret was only 9 years old.

Photographs and mementos of her father were few. Memories were about all she had left.


Photo from Ball Family memorial slideshow, 2022
This is an early photo of U.S. Army soldier Arlon Elwood “Jackson” Ball in uniform. The patches, ribbons and medals on this uniform demonstrate that he had not yet served overseas or been involved in any combat.

Photo from Ball Family memorial slideshow, 2022 This is an early photo of U.S. Army soldier Arlon Elwood “Jackson” Ball in uniform. The patches, ribbons and medals on this uniform demonstrate that he had not yet served overseas or been involved in any combat.